Saturday, 12 October 2013

Consultation on the New SEN Code

The government has recently launched an open consultation on the new Special Educational Needs (SEN) Code of Practice and Regulation. The consultation will run until 9th of December 2013.

The new Code's most radical policy is the shift from the current system of Statements of SEN  which typically get issued mid-school career and last until 16 years with 'Education, Health & Care Plans' which will run from birth to 25 years. Based on what teaching colleagues have said so far, this is generally being viewed as a positive development even if the mechanics and realities are not yet fully known.

I have previously spoken on this issue - see my PowerPoint presentation, 'Challenges and Opportunities facing SEN in 2013' (also available for download here and here).

Monday, 7 October 2013

Screenagers, Reason and Civilisation

Further to the previous post about gaming culture amongst school-age students - and the recent release of Grand Theft Auto V - readers of this blog might find useful, on mulling over the issues raised, the following passage from the excellent 21st Century Boys by Sue Palmer:

"Digital natives, digital learners?

This is not an argument against information technology. It's abundantly clear that the developments of recent decades are at least as significant to human progress as the invention of the printing press. We're at the dawn of a new Renaissance, as momentous as that 16th century rebirth of learning which propelled Europe out of superstition and into the Enlightenment...

But if the values that drove the Enlightenment (and brought humanity this far) are to survive, we must make sure all our children can use technology effectively, not merely for entertainment but to learn and create. Democracy demands that everyone has a mind to learn, not just a fortunate elite who can manipulate the disempowered majority. To use computer technology effectively - accessing hypertext, diving in and out of windows, holding a variety of multimedia information in the mind while maintaining a logical train of thought - boys need to focus their concentration just as efficiently as they do to read and write. Probably more.

It's by no means easy to make (and retain) creative mental connections while at the same time clinging on to the thread of an underlying logic. In fact, it takes a lot of intellectual discipline. Most experts I've met from the field of 'digital literacy' insist that, in order to use computers well, children must be able to read and write first. They intuitively feel that this 21st century way of using the human brain 'piggybacks' on the logical, sequential processes of old-fashioned literacy.

If this is the case, it has enormous implications for education. Children, especially boys, are drawn to screens and screen-based learning from the moment they're born, and in a 21st century world it seems important that these 'digital natives' take their place as soon as possible in the digital world. There's pressure from all directions - media, marketing and government education gurus - to get them hooked into technology as soon as they can manipulate a mouse...

'Kids today are not remotely the same as they were.... their brains are different,' said education expert Ian Jukes at a conference I recently attended. 'Children's brains are adapting to the digital bombardment... they are not teenagers but screenagers!' His argument was that regular frequent exposure to digital technology rewires children's brains in ways that enhance their visual memory and processing skills, so that the current generation has learned to process information in a fundamentally different way from their forebears. 'Digital learners' prefer to access information from multiple media sources (pictures, sounds, colour, video) rather than old-fashioned text, operating, as Jukes puts it, at 'twitch speed'. They use parallel processing and multitasking techniques, applying 'continuous partial attention'. Their expertise is in randomly accessing hyperlinked multimedia information, and their reward is 'learning that is relevant, active, instantly useful and fun.'

This argument is reassuring for 21st century parents. But with a little reflection it's obvious that 'the elaborate procedural habits of formal thinking' won't develop out of continuous partial attention, flicking here and there at twitch speed. It's learning, Jim, but not learning as we've known it throughout human history.

The success of the species so far has relied on application, focused concentration and the capacity to pursue long-term rewards rather than immediate gratification. As, thanks to literacy, more and more human beings acquired these mental strengths the more progress Homosapiens made. As a woman, most of whose sex were allowed access to literacy and learning only a hundred years ago, I'm very conscious of the democratising power of formal thought processes... and, on behalf of my daughter and future generations of women, very anxious literacy should continue to work its magic on the minds of men.

But for most boys - whose nature doesn't fit them for sitting in a classroom, messing about with fiddly little symbols - the development of disciplined attention takes several years of determined effort. As Ian Jukes himself points out, if we encourage them to adapt to the digital bombardment too soon, 'the downside is that children may find it more difficult to follow a logical train of thought'. Since logic underpins every aspect of education and civilisation, this is a serious downside.

In a multimedia world, it would be insane to suggest we keep little boys away from technology until they're literate - it's an integral part of their world and a source of fun and information. But there are many reasons to put sensible limits on its use. We've seen that tuning a boy into screens before he's learning to tune into people may well inhibit his development of human empathy. In the same way, tuning him into quick-fire 'digital learning strategies' before he's mastered the ability to read and write may inhibit his capacity to think clearly and logically. In these two very important respects, allowing a boy to turn into a dedicated screenager before he enters his teens may lead to an unbalanced brain."

Sunday, 6 October 2013

We need to talk about Wade?

This post is perhaps best started with two disclaimers.

Firstly, I do not own a games console. Although I did enjoy the first two instalments of the Halo series, via a younger brother's Xbox, I took a decision some years ago that I had better ways to spend my time. This decision came after spending an entire Saturday glued to a screen 'masterminding' a failed Space Marine attack on the strategy game Dawn of War - which then abruptly failed!

Secondly, I have not played Grand Theft Auto V. The concerns I raise about this particular game are based on YouTube clips and a recent conversation with a former colleague about his experiences of playing the game. I realise, that by making criticism of this game, I risk falling into the age-old trap of condemning something not fully known and understood. As such, I will keep my comments on this particular issue brief and restrained!

Generally speaking, there are varying perspectives about the worth of computer games. They are, of course, one of the many forms of popular entertainment which all humans need as a break from work and other busyness. They have also become part of our modern culture - arguably even having the potential to be considered an art. Whether they have achieved that status yet is disputable - the following articles are insights into this debate:

In relation to schools, there is a similar discussion - coming under the header 'Gamification' - as to how schools should view computer games and gaming culture amongst young people. There is the view that such technologies offer a potentially powerful learning resource, particularly so for those students disengaged from more traditional teaching and learning methods. The counter-view is that the use of computer games within a school setting potentially fuels further an anti-social, detached-from-reality screen addiction amongst students. Below are a few examples of these varying viewpoints:

The child development and education writer, Sue Palmer, has written prolifically on the issue of technology and the nurturing of young people. I tend to agree with Sue Palmer's argument that in recognising the benefits of playing computer games in developing problem-solving capacity ('S-type' skills), we also must recognise that too much time spent in isolation in front of a computer screen can hinder the fostering of interpersonal qualities ('E-type' skills). In the 'real world' of work-based teams, family, friendships and love, it is clear we need as much of the latter as we do of the former.

The same goes for risk-taking, highlighted in the articles cited above and also touched upon by Sue Palmer in her book, 21st Century Boys. In conservations with many teenage boys I have listened as many enthusiastically proclaim a wish to join the armed forces. The appeal of becoming a soldier is natural for young people seeking adventure - a path I also seriously considered at a similar age - and offers much in terms of the transferable skills that can be gained, especially technical trades. However, when exploring this further with students over the past few years I have noted that the ambition frequently comes from playing games such as Call of Duty with their vision of the future centering solely on frontline Rambo-style action. It seems they have little realistic idea of the demands or risks.

As part of my new role I have been fortunate to take part in a Forest Schools project, each week on a Wednesday with a group of students at-risk of exclusion. Despite being just a few sessions in, I can already see its power to counter some of the detrimental effects our Digital Age, amongst other things, has on young people. It also causes me to look back on attempts at kinaesthetic learning activities (more often than not 'cut and stick') in my previous guise as English and History teacher with a real sense of inadequacy! For a good introduction to Forest Schools, I recommend the following write-up:

- 'Why children should learn outdoors' - by Gordon Cairns (Independent, Feb 2010)

And so, now onto the most recent computer game craze, Grand Theft Auto V. Those following the @HumansNotRobots feed on Twitter will see I supported the voicing of concern over the 'mental patient' costumes over the past week or so. However, following a conversation with my former colleague about GTA V and the interplay between crime boss 'Trevor' and his sidekick 'Wade', a character portrayed as having cognitive difficulties, it struck me attention also needs drawing to this particular issue. A quick search of 'GTA V Wade' on Twitter brought up lots of examples of young people casually mocking this character as a 'retard', 'mentally handicapped' and 'speaking funny like Flynn from Breaking Bad.' How much of this attitude feeds back into school communities should be a concern to teachers and parents.

It's also worth noting the game is not without controversy beyond this particular issue, with argument that it makes users comfortable with misogyny:

> 'Grand Theft Auto V is designed to denigrate women' - by Tom Hoggins (Telegraph, Oct 2013)

And that the game includes do-it-yourself torture scenes serving both as particularly sadistic entertainment for users and a cynical way of generating even more controversy, more publicity and ultimately more sales:

> 'A closer look at GTA V's most controversial scene' - by Luke Holland (Den of Geek, Oct 2013)

The counter view is that GTA V is clearly rated as adults-only and deeply satirical, as Tom Watson MP has argued - that we could compare it with critically-lauded films such as Reservoir Dogs and Fight Club or the more recent Breaking Bad TV series. However, as argued in an online letter from a computer games salesman - 'I Sold Too Many Copies of GTA V To Parents Who Didn't Give a Damn' - parents need to be a bit more clued-up of just what they are buying when their son or daughter asks them to pick up the latest computer game whilst doing the weekly shop.

In terms of schools, it strikes me that staff - as my former colleague did - also need to take the time to find out more about the games which we dismiss as passing fads but in fact need addressing with students so that the divide between fantasy world and real world remains firm in their minds. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Sprinting down the runway

So, I'm now two weeks into my new post and busily acclimatising to a different working environment whilst also getting established with the students and trying to keep my head above water with planning. This is the reason why, for the moment at least, updates to Humans Not Robots have ground to a halt. 

My new duties include teaching food technology, developing a small-scale 'first response' SEBD provision that schools could potentially replicate within their own settings, putting together an alternative curriculum course around personal finance and enterprise for Year 10 & Year 11s, plus the no small matter of data & tracking within a PRU context. 

A further duty is to act as form tutor for a bunch of Year 11 students. To put some structure and content into our daily tutorial periods, I have decided to create a weekly reflection, with a related word of the week, that we can focus on over the five morning slots - with the incentive of a small prize for the student who completes the follow-up activity first. I have shared the first two of this series on TES Resources and will add more as the weeks progress - these can be freely accessed here:

In addition to form times, these might be of use to colleagues running Nurture Groups or looking for last minute assembly ideas. As ever, I appreciate any feedback - and I would certainly welcome suggestions for future reflections.

A relative describes the initial period of starting a new job as being a bit like an aeroplane taking off - a much greater amount of energy is required at this point in getting going, and remaining stable, than the rest of the journey (taking the decision to 'touch down' and leave is, in my recent experience, the other big stress point!).

Working with some students this week who are also starting anew at my provision, I've found myself able to relate to their own experiences perhaps more easily than I would were I settled. My thoughts this past two weeks have also turned frequently to the Year 7s starting out at 'big school' - the story of one lucky group having their first assembly at the Warner Bros Studio set for Hogwarts raised a smile, although I'm sure for many other Year 7s things feel equally as strange at this point without the wizard hats!

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Top Ten Quotes about Change & New Beginnings

Ahead of the new school year, here are a few quotes you might wish to share with your students:

>> "What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from." - T. S. Eliot 

>> "Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” - Terry Pratchett

>> “Some changes look negative on the surface but you will soon realise that space is being created in your life for something new to emerge.” - Eckhart Tolle

>> “We are products of our past, but we don't have to be prisoners of it.” - Rick Warren

>> "Although no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.” - Carl Bard

>> "The beginning is always today." - Mary Shelley

>> “Isn't it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?” - L.M. Montgomery

>> "Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today." - Malcolm X 

>> "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." - Lao Tzu


>>  “Change is inevitable - except from a vending machine.” - Robert C. Gallagher

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Stepping up

Just a quick note to let readers know I have had a short article published by the Guardian Teacher Network: 

A sample of the leadership resources I use - such as the timelines mentioned in the article - can be accessed here.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

On sabbatical with 'It's Kind of a Funny Story' by Ned Vizzini

Being a fairly regular blogger via this site, I also find myself reading an array of other blogs. What I’ve noticed over the past couple of years is that for many bloggers, regardless of their profession or specialist subject, the month of August often sees a reduction in activity. Some bloggers simply go quiet whilst others actively wave off their readers for the summer with an ‘I’m going off on sabbatical, see you later folks!’ type post.

This summer it's been the same for me, particularly as I am now in that strange-feeling transition phase between jobs, preparing to move to Assistant Deputy Headteacher at the Pendlebury Centre (a nationally-recognised specialist provision for students with complex emotional-social needs). Under advice from my new headteacher to not get too bogged down in the relevant books and to simply recoup, I’ve resisted delving into the pile on various psychological conditions I’ve gathered over the past few months.

However, I do believe the summer break could be viewed in some respects as a sabbatical – and this can be a productive way of looking at this time. The conceptual understanding and practise of sabbatical has changed over time, having roots in our Judea-Christian culture of ‘keeping the Sabbath’ and relating also to ancient agricultural life, with farming of an area ceasing every seventh year to allow the land to recover. Over the centuries this tradition of sabbatical shifted to universities and to the church, with academics and clergy periodically stepping back from daily duties to undertake a period of reading and reflection. More recently it is a practice taken up by creative technology firms such as IBM and Microsoft, again with a view that those who undertake sabbatical attain something during this time that usual working commitments would otherwise constrain.

So, for my self-declared sabbatical this year, I decided as well as the usual mix of sun seeking, plodding around a foreign city, catching up with family, attending to long neglected chores etc., I would take some time to read and reflect on educational issues. But also, keeping in mind the need to relax, I made sure the reading material would be as light-hearted as possible – and to mix it in with books of no direct relevance to education, which to give a flavour includes ‘I Hate Football’, a diary of a Sheffield Wednesday fan!

One of the books that has stood out during this period which I would recommend to colleagues and parents, and older students, is ‘It's Kind of a Funny Story’ by Ned Vizzini. I've since found out there is a Hollywood adaptation of this book although I am hesitant to watch it for fear of ruining the original.

I picked 'It's Kind of a Funny Story' for obvious reasons as it relates specifically to complex emotional-social needs amongst adolescents, with a focus primarily on an older teenager’s experience of anxiety and depression which results in hospitalisation. Although based on many of the author’s real-life experiences, it has to be said the account is fictional and in many ways adheres to teenage narrative, with a fairly typical story of young love and a resolved, happy ending. However, it also – as the best fiction should – makes observations that are true-to-life, providing value to the reader.

The story is told from the perspective of Craig Gilner, a fifteen year old with a bright academic future. Having spent a year working tirelessly to attain a place at a top New York school, Craig finds himself overwhelmed by the pressures of his chosen study route and fitting into a peer group which revolves around cannabis, girls and computer games. As the competing pressures build further, Craig becomes depressed and enters a fairly typical programme of 'learn how to cope' counselling. With this having seemingly little impact, he in turn becomes suicidal - planning to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge - and ends up undertaking a five-day stay at a mental health ward for adults (as the teenage section is being refurbished). From there we gain further insight into Craig’s inner dialogue as he awakens to the triggers for his depression – matched with witty yet warm observations of fellow inpatients.

What is striking about this read is how it serves to remind us of some of the general, actually very ordinary, thought processes and experiences teenagers go through, many which we forget (perhaps conveniently!) as we become adults. What it equally striking is that Craig’s life is not one of neglect, trauma or abuse – he is a fairly-affluent, run-of-the-mill kid (arguably with some autistic traits). Some of the guilt Craig carries, further driving the anxiety and depression, is that he feels he should be more satisfied, more grateful compared to those less fortunate; “Of course I wasn't abused. If I were; things would be so simple. I'd have a reason for being in a shrink's office. I'd have a justification and something to work on. The world wasn't going to give me something that tidy.”

During his stay at the hospital, Craig discusses with Noelle – a teenage girl admitted to the same ward due to self-harming – whether they are in fact experiencing a modernity-induced ‘sixth life crisis’:

“Forget the midlife crisis. It’s all about the sixth-life crisis.”

”What the hell is that?”

”Well, first there’s the quarter-life crisis. That’s like the characters on Friends—people freaking out that they won’t get married. Twenty-year-olds. That’s probably true that people get quarter-life crises; I wouldn’t know. But I know that now things work faster. Before you had to wait until you were twenty to have enough choices of things to do with your life to start getting freaked out. But now there’s so much stuff for you to buy, and so many ways you can spend your time, and so many specialties that you need to get started on very early in life—like ballet, right, Noelle, when did you start ballet?”


”Okay. I started Tae Bo at six. So there are like— so many people angling for success and so many colleges you’re supposed to get into, and so many women you’re supposed to have sex with ... So now, instead of a quarter-life crisis they’ve got a fifth-life crisis — that’s when you’re eighteen — and a sixth-life crisis — that’s when you’re fourteen. I think that’s what a lot of people have. Well, there are lot of people who make a lot of money off the fifth-life and sixth-life crises. All of a sudden they have a ton of consumers scared out of their minds and willing to buy facial cream, designer jeans, SAT test prep courses, condoms, cars, scooters, self-help books, watches, wallets, stocks, whatever… all the crap that the twenty-somethings used to buy, they now have the ten-somethings buying. They doubled their market! So pretty soon. there’ll be seventh-life and eighth-life crises. Then eventually a baby will be born and the doctors will look at it and wonder right away if it’s unequipped to deal with the world; if they decide it doesn’t look happy, they’ll put it on antidepressants, get it started on that particular consumer track.”

The notion of a ‘sixth life crisis’ forms part of the lingo Craig deploys to verbalise aspects of his emotional-social state - terminology we adults could perhaps also draw upon, where appropriate, when talking with students who face similar challenges. Craig talks repeatedly about 'anchors' and 'tentacles', likening himself to a boat bouncing amongst the waves – the anchors, such as riding his bike at the weekend, are those things that help increase his sense of calm whilst the tentacles, such as constantly checking his email for task reminders, are those things which trigger his sense of being under-threat:

“Tentacles is my term — the Tentacles are the evil tasks that invade my life. Like, for example, my American History class last week, which necessitated me writing a paper on the weapons of the Revolutionary war, which necessitated me traveling to the Metropolitan Museum to check out some of the old guns, which necessitated me getting the subway, which necessitated me being away from my cell phone and email for 45 minutes, which meant that I didn’t get to respond to a mass mail sent out by my teacher asking who needed extra credit, which meant other kids snapped up the extra credit, which meant I wasn’t going to get a 98 in the class, which meant I wasn’t anywhere close to a 98.6 average (body temperature, that’s what you needed to get), which meant I wasn’t going to get into a Good College, which meant I wasn’t going to have a Good Job, which meant I wasn’t going to have health insurance, which meant I’d have to pay tremendous amounts of money for the shrinks and drugs my brain needed, which meant I wasn’t going to have enough money to pay for a Good Lifestyle, which meant I’d feel ashamed, which meant I’d get depressed, and that was the big one because I knew what that did to me: it made it so I wouldn’t get out of bed, which led to the ultimate thing — homelessness. If you can’t get out of bed for long enough, people come and take your bed away.”

Similarly, Craig talks often about the constant drive to have a firmly recognisable ‘shift’, a big sudden moment of cure he can celebrate; "I want there to be a shift so bad. I want my brain to slide into the slot it was meant to be in, rest there the way it did last fall of last year, back when I was young and witty, and my teachers said I had incredible promise..."

When he hits further difficulty, he habitually denounces previous progress as a ‘fake shift’. By viewing things in this perfectionist 'all or nothing' way, this again generates further anxious thoughts (which he calls ‘cycling’) and subsequent low mood. I personally found this a little chastening, as it is perhaps an approach we as adults take in our work with young people, falling into a habit of working towards big, calendar-scheduled ‘do or die’ breakthroughs. Rather than accepting that learning and growth in fact follows a less-fixed pattern of small steps with progress occurring at different speeds, including points of regression. Perhaps this also reflects the dominant organisational culture within education now?

During what we could call his very own sabbatical, Craig does in fact begin to embark on a real shift by taking a step back from actively struggling with the ‘tentacles’ he perceives and simply realising he is on the wrong study route and too immersed with the wrong crowd – and crucially, that there are other options. From there he decides to move from a study route composed of science and maths to a creative arts course, which he has a natural talent in. He also resolves to handle his friendships more assertively. There is of course something true-to-life about this also, that Craig just needed to find his niche, his place in the world.

‘It's Kind of a Funny Story’ is ultimately just that, a story that genuinely had me laughing out loud at times but also an insight – albeit a snapshot - of how things can go wrong for teenagers who seem to have so much going for them. There are so many poignant quotes from the book but one of my favourites towards the end has to be this:

“I’m not better, you know. The weight hasn’t left my head. I feel how easily I could fall back into it, lie down and not eat, waste my time and curse wasting my time, look at my homework and freak out and go and chill at Aaron’s, look at Nia and be jealous again, take the subway home and hope that it has an accident, go and get my bike and head to the Brooklyn Bridge. All of that is still there. The only thing is, it’s not an option now. It’s just… a possibility, like it’s a possibility that I could turn to dust in the next instant and be disseminated throughout the universe as an omniscient consciousness. It’s not a very likely possibility.”

I guess, going forward into my new role, the mission is simply this – to increase one set of options for a young person whilst decreasing other possibilities, ideally to the point they become very unlikely. Although this is what, in a nutshell, all teachers should in essence be trying to do on their return to school over the coming weeks, each within their own fields.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Talking about Autism

Coming to the end of my time at Thornleigh Salesian College has prompted me to look back on life over the past few years as a SENCo and teacher in a large, inclusive secondary school. With Y6 / Y7 transition underway, I am also naturally inclined to reflect on the possible experiences - the potential opportunities, the potential difficulties - that lie ahead for some of our incoming students with additional needs. I am also, at this point particularly so, tuned in to the experiences of parents who quite understandably have anxiety, as well as hope, regarding this milestone in their child's life.

In turn, I've written a short article for the Talk About Autism website on the experiences of secondary students with higher-functioning autism - 'Life at my secondary school for a student with autism'. This is very much a 'write-up' on patterns I've observed and issues I've worked with over the past few years. I hasten to add the disclaimer that it is obviously not wholly reflective of all experiences - but I do hope it provides some insight, particularly for those parents of Y6 students with higher-functioning autism who are about to take the step into 'big school'.

Friday, 12 July 2013

If You Like My Resources...

As I have said before, I don't charge anything for the resources I share online. Nor do I make any profit from this website. However, if you do use them - and do feel they are worth paying for - please could I ask you make a donation to a close friend's JustGiving page.

At the end of July, Jon Jones is cycling with colleagues from Great Wakering in Essex to Paris (in France!) to raise money for Havens Hospices, an organisation and community which provided excellent care to his mother who passed away in April 2012.

Of course, (most of) you won't know Jon and, all being well, probably won't encounter Havens Hospices - but maybe the best kind of giving is when we give randomly?

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Much more than a good read

One of the most powerful texts I've recently been working on with my students is Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. It has triggered some curious, thoughtful classroom discussions and allowed us to venture into analysing propaganda posters and persuasive speech. For Level 3 - 4 students, it's proving a real hit in terms of their engagement and developing their higher-level thinking skills.

For our next step we are going to write and deliver a speech from the perspective of Tommo Peaceful on his return from the frontlines in 1918, based on the premise that he may feel a calling to speak for his fallen brother, Charlie, who previously expressed strong views about the nature of the conflict before he was charged and shot for desertion. The speech will serve primarily as a counter to the recruitment speech portrayed in Chapter 7 of the book, although they will be encouraged to also consider Tommo's earlier pro-war views and whether he might retain some of them.

The story of Private Peaceful is a thought-provoking one on a wider level given the recent news about government initiatives to bring former military personnel into schools as teachers - and thinking ahead, with the upcoming 2014 commemorations to mark a century since the start of 'The Great War'.

I have a close friend in the military and he has talked about becoming a science teacher when his time as a Royal Marine medic comes to an end. I can see he would have a lot to offer young people in this capacity but I feel his suitability is more based on his personal qualities rather than his military experience. I think the same could be said of many soldiers and other armed forces personnel - with thorough training, via a PGCE or GTP-type route, they could build on their personal qualities and be transformed into fantastic teachers.

However, my concern over recent proposals is that the government sees their entrance into schools as being more about simply parachuting in tough Rambo-types, fully kitted out with military lingo and boot-up-the-backside behaviour strategies. I share the view of Brian Lightman, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, who was quoted as saying, "...a military ethos belongs in the military - schools need a learning ethos..."

Having worked for the past three years in a fantastic Salesian school, I have come to see the value of having a well-rooted, missional ethos - but one that seeks to impose a power driven, no questions hierarchy goes against much of what education should stand for. And whilst I recognise there is a need for clear expectations and boundaries within a student community, a military-style approach to discipline is likely to prove counter-productive for those students with autism, ADHD, attachment issues and other more-unique personalities.

Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT, hit the nail on the head with his observation, "There is a distinction between the skills and expertise required to maintain discipline among adults in the armed services with that required to ensure there is positive behaviour in schools. “To say you can simply transfer the skills from one to the other is an oversimplification of the complexities of dealing with pupil behaviour in schools.” 

A more appropriate initiative for schools who are genuinely failing to manage challenging behaviour, which is likely to be rooted in both social-emotional and learning difficulties issues, would be to return to the learning principles of Orton-Gillingham and to hook into the Nurture Group approach towards promoting social-emotional well-being.

In terms of how I choose texts to use with the young people I teach, I have recently written a short guide for The Guardian's Teacher Network website on the key things I look for. Some time ago I also put together a list of 'books to engage teenagers reading and get them thinking...' via Amazon's Listmania! feature (although you can obviously buy them elsewhere).

As we approach WWI commemorations next year, I will be looking to go further with Private Peaceful and the themes it raises. For me this is not about brainwashing young people into becoming pacifists, but it is about nurturing their critical thinking skills and awareness as well as their reading - particularly as we know lower-attaining students, boys in particular, are often the ones who go on to make up the rank and file of the armed forces.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

A day in the life of me...

Today the Guardian Teacher Network published an article of mine looking at 'a day in the life of an SEN coordinator'. I feel a million and one disclaimers are needed, given the way the role varies acoss schools, but I hope it will prove generally useful - and encouraging - for those looking at following this career route.

Jackie Stewart on dyslexia, Suli Breaks on education...

I have now found time to upload the updated presentation on 'Dyslexia Friendly Classrooms' (also made available here and here) I delivered recently (free of charge by the way, I'm not a consultant!) at Blackrod Church School. It was good to try and look at dyslexia from a primary perspective given my experience has nearly always been in secondary settings.
In the presentation I have included a clip from the BBC's 'Don't call me stupid' documentary, featuring actress Kara Tointon. Having watched it a number of times now, I still think it's one of the best introductions to dyslexia - particularly so because you get to see first-hand a person with dyslexia reading. I have a lot of respect for Kara Tointon allowing herself to be filmed publicly demonstrating the difficulties associated with this condtion.
On looking around, I also found this from Jackie Stewart which I also think is worth showing to colleagues and perhaps also showing to older students with dyslexia as part of a mentoring programme around self-awareness.

Speaking of older students, I think the following article by Bernadette McClean succinctly sums up the general strategies that can be used to support them.
Finally, if you really want to get older students with dyslexia to engage in meaningful discussions about how they learn best, what future study and career path is most suited for them etc., then it might be worthwhile showing them this by Suli Breaks:

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Two more bits on the TA debate

Following yesterday's blog post in which I looked at how the debate over teaching assistants now appears to be gathering momentum - with the very real prospect of cuts by the current government - I have been recommended these two short articles:

These obviously highlight a different side to the story presented in the Daily Mail on Monday.

Two further points I have noticed, regarding the reporting of this, is that the Sutton Trust's findings on teaching assistants was based on what they (fairly) openly acknowledge to be limited evidence. Also, the Daily Mail article says £4billion per year is spent on 232,000 teaching assistants - at an average wage of £17000 per year. I am not sure this figure is accurate as most teaching assistants I have worked with over the years have been paid approximately £10000.

This is not to rubbish the valuable research out there, but there is a need to stay critically minded.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Comings, possible goings and redefinings...

I've spent a few hours over the past few days updating some training I originally put together 2 - 3 years ago on the subject of 'Dyslexia-Friendly Schools'. The updates were mainly centred around a desire to place more emphasis on dyslexia, and SEN in general, as an issue of diversity rather than disability. The articles below demonstrate this shift, the first one relating to the thought-provoking book 'The Dyslexic Advantage' by Brock L. Eide and Fernette F. Eide.


It seems to me that we are at the beginnings of a shift in our thinking around 'learning difficulties' with a much greater emphasis on the multiformity of personality and ability. It occurred to me today that in a decade or so, if this blog is still around, it may well be looked upon as 'backward' in its perspective and vernacular, in the same way we now tut-tut at the era of the 'remedial class' and 'school for the maladjusted'.

That said, I do think we do still need to focus much of our dialogue and resource creation around addressing the very real, and very much prominent, difficulties experienced by young people in the very particular and peculiar environments of schools. With dyslexia, this is primarily literacy, organisational skills and self-esteem. With autism, this centres around coping with a large, bustling, socially diverse and not always emotionally-healthy community. To ignore difficulty to dogmatically chase the notion of 'staying positive' would ultimately do a disservice to the student under the label.

In terms of shift, it is also worth noting an item in the Daily Mail yesterday reporting on the prospect of huge cuts to the teaching assistant workforce in the UK. I admit to having very mixed feelings about this. I naturally have a strong loyalty to teaching assistants given I work with them closely in my role as SEN Coordinator. They work tirelessly and despite the weight of evidence, I maintain they do much to ease the life of vulnerable young people in schools (and in doing so, free up teachers), undertaking tasks that cannot be easily measured in terms of national curriculum levels - tasks such as making sure a student with blood sugar issues and weak memory eats his lunch everyday or ensuring a student having an anxiety attack calms down quickly to return lesson. The TA role also acts as a de facto internship for many graduates wanting to go into teaching and related professions such as social services.  

The Sutton Trust report into Pupil Premium funding kind of kicked off the radical rethink by deeming teaching assistants, as an intervention to raise achievement amongst cohorts targeted by the funding, to be both ineffective and costly compared to other interventions. However, there is a body of research - such as 'Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistant' by Peter Blatchford, Anthony Russell and Roy Webster - which has been growing for some time. It is a body of research that cannot be ignored.

As such, I read with interest May 2013's edition of 'NASEN Special' which featured two articles on this issue. The first by Roy Webster and Peter Blatchford, titled 'Rethinking the TA role' offered a summary of their book mentioned above and their smaller project, 'Making a Statement', sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation. The standout points of their findings are:

- Students with a high-level of TA support do even less well academically because of the presence / intervention of a teaching assistant.
- This is not the fault of teaching assistants themselves, rather a result of the systems, common practices and cultures spawned over time as TAs have grown in number.

They recommend the following:

- TAs should be trained sufficiently, in the theory and practice of teaching & learning, to act in an instructional role. TAs need to become a more qualified, specialist workforce.
- TA and teacher communication about schemes of learning content, clear planned outcomes of their role, individual needs of students and so on needs to happen before, after and around lessons not ad hoc in the lesson. The TA role needs to more symbiotic with the teacher role rather than an blunt add-on.
- TAs need to be coached specifically in 'learning conversations' with students rather than communication that 'closes down' and is preoccupied with task completion.

Having read this article, I turned the page to find an article on the use of pupil premium funding, 'A good investment' by Gill Finch and Hugh Steele, which looks at how The Dale School used their pot of money to create an intervention team including a physiotherapist, speech and language therapist, a family support worker and several other 'specialist assistants'. I have long thought this kind of model would be more suitable than the current model.

The bigger issue is changing the way Statements of SEN are written at LA level and the culture that has developed around it. For while ever Statements of SEN or equivalent personalised plans stipulate TA hours, schools will feel obliged to implement them and in turn, parents and carers will continue to demand their child's funding is spent in this way.

It seems the two articles combined suggest a way forward for the role of the teaching assistant - perhaps fewer in number but more specialised and more autonomous. What also mustn't be forgotten is that if this is to happen, the pay scales of TAs will also need reviewing.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

New Code, New Era?

In case you didn't know, the Department for Education has now published a rough draft of the new 'SEN Code of Practice' with supporting documents - which I've listed below for easy access:

Indicative Draft: The (0-25) Special Educational Needs Code of Practice
Illustrative Regulations for Special Educational Needs
Childrens and Families Bill 2013

Over the past year I have witnessed a lot of anxious talk about the coming changes in SEN in the UK, centred mainly around the recent SEND Green Paper and the wider-reaching implications of Pupil Premium, specifically the burgeoning body of research around its effective use.

I was recently asked to sum up, via a PowerPoint presentation, the challenges and opportunities in light of these changes and this can be viewed here. Ultimately though, I take the position we have to simply 'wait and see' - reasoning that it's best to keep a close eye on things without jumping the gun in terms of drawing hard-and-fast conclusions or prematurely changing policy & practice to prepare for a brave new world. 

I am quietly hopeful it will lead to much earlier identification, a more consistent approach to allocating funding and much greater cooperation between social & health agencies and schools - and greater accountability on the part of these agencies to carry out long-term, specialist work with our most vulnerable young people, rather than dipping in and out. Of course this will mean much better resourcing of these agencies to enable them to play a full part in narrowing the attainment gap and raising the well-being of our most vulnerable.

Time - and money - will tell!

Friday, 24 May 2013

Teenage Brains and Tricky Subjects

This week I have been reading (and watching) The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas with a lower-attaining Y8 group. The students have been, by and large, engaged and thoughtful in their discussions.

However, I have noticed that certainly in terms of the empathetic aspect of their learning, I have had to regularly coach them in appropriate comments and put in place clear boundaries (as some attempted to make 'jokes' by comparing one another to the Jewish character Schmuel). I mentioned this to the educational psychologist I work with, a colleague I hold in very high esteem, who noted that the teenage brain's frontal lobe - which is responsible for higher-level emotional skills, higher-level reasoning and plays a key part in inhibiting inappropriate behaviour - is one of the final parts to develop into adulthood, lagging somewhat behind other aspects. I find this fascinating as we often base much of our classroom management on encouraging teenagers to empathise and reason.

I guess, in terms of the content of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, knowledge of this has helped me be far more patient and calm (but nonetheless assertive) in responding to 'jokes' which for such an emotive issue as The Holocaust, would ordinarily cause high offence.

I think, also, that some of their insensitivity is perhaps also borne out of them coming from a younger generation - I heard first-hand stories of World War Two and the experience of Jewish people from my grandparents. For my students, born in 2000, this is unlikely to be the case.

I also think this has relevance to one of today's news items, the prevalence of teenagers accessing pornography and other explicit videos online - and the risks this poses to them developing a healthy psychology.

It is also worth noting that for lower-attaining students - many of whom have what we terms as 'dyslexia', 'attention deficit' and so on - it stands to reason that they may encounter more difficulty in activating their frontal lobes! The infographic below, which I developed some time ago for a presentation, summarises this (to download it as a pdf poster, click here):

If you want to read more into this issue, I also recommend the following:

Top Ten Quotes on Dyscalculia

Following on from my post about dyscalculia, I've been looking around for quotes which might be useful for classroom displays to get students (and teachers!) thinking about the importance of Maths and how we overcome difficulties in this subject. Here are a few I think are worth sharing:

> "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." - Albert Einstein

> "If I have been able to see further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants." - Isaac Newton

> "Somebody came up to me after a talk I had given, and say, “You make mathematics seem like fun.” I was inspired to reply, “If it isn’t fun, why do it?”" - Ralph P. Boas

> "I advise my students to listen carefully the moment they decide to take no more mathematics courses. They might be able to hear the sound of closing doors." - James Caballero

> "We only think when confronted with a problem." - John Dewey

"The essence of mathematics is not to make simple things complicated, but to make complicated things simple." - S. Gudder

> "I’ve missed 3000 shots. Twenty-six times the game-winning shot has been trusted to me, and I’ve missed. I’ve lost over 300 games. I’ve failed over and over and over again, and that is why I’ve succeeded." - Michael Jordan

> "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." - Chinese Proverb

> "There is no branch of mathematics, however abstract, which may not someday be applied to the phenomena of the real world." - Nicolai Lobachevsky

> "Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics, I assure you that mine are greater." - Albert Einstein

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Question of Dyscalculia

I have to admit I know very little about dyscalculia in comparison to say dyslexia, autism and attachment theory. However, one evening this week - whilst casually surfing the net - I stumbled across this 5-minute BBC documentary, originally from The One Show, which provides a good introduction. From there, I've done a bit more focused reading around the subject.

Certainly I have encountered students who present with persistent, specific difficulties with acquiring basic numeracy and from there, higher-level Maths skills. But the numbers of those who experience this as their sole difficulty and not alongside other issues such as autism, dyslexia and low self-esteem is, from what I have seen over the past decade, relatively low. Students who present with 'pure dyscalculia' tend to be a 'minority within a minority'. 

I am ready to accept the argument that this could be an issue of mis-identification - and maybe also due to our national culture where illiteracy is something to be very concerned about whereas innumeracy is something far more acceptable. How many times have you heard, "I'm really worried, he's struggling with Maths..." compared to "I'm really worried, he's struggling with reading and writing..."? And this is perhaps why SEN & support teams have much less referrals relating to particular concerns over numeracy.

The impact of illiteracy on a person's future prospects is pretty well-documented when compared to the long-term consequences of innumeracy. However, there are interesting news articles out there which point to its wide-ranging impact:

Having looked at these, how did you initially respond? With an urgent sense of concern or slight bemusement? I think many of us, if we are honest, would fall into the latter. That said, there are other more recent news articles out there that raise the sense of importance in identifying and addressing numeracy difficulties:

There are various reasons posited for why people do not, and seemingly cannot, acquire a level of Maths required for everyday living and working. Our national culture has already been mentioned and the quality of Maths teaching has also come under the spotlight but there is evidence to suggest that dyscalculia-type differences are rooted in genetic / biological make-up, sitting quite separately from general intelligence - which often  then snowballs into a full-blown difficulty via the education system.

A question has also been raised as to whether we are currently caught in a vicious circle whereby parents with underdeveloped Maths do not have the understanding, skills or confidence to help their sons and daughters with Maths homework.

In terms of the 'dyscalculic experience', the main difficulties reported include:


- learning the meaning of numbers - known as number sense
- sorting objects by size, shape and colour
- comparing and contrasting using smaller / bigger, taller / shorter etc.
- reciting numbers up to 20, counting objects up to 5

Primary School:

- acquiring addition and subtraction skills involving double figures
- acquiring basic multiplication and division skills
- retaining basic maths knowledge such as times tables
- numbers 'jumping around' on the paper and/or 'in their head'
- telling the time using a standard faced clock
- understanding the concept of direction - left / right, forwards / backwards
- a continued reliance on counting on fingers

High School:

- low self-esteem in maths, a 'can't do attitude'
- understanding key measurement concepts such as temperature, currency, speed
- learning the meaning of higher-level maths symbols
- breaking down a more advanced maths problem into sequential steps
- acquiring skills that can be used over the long term without constant re-teaching

As with dyslexia, the key questions to consider when investigating further should centre around discrepancies:

> Are they good at speaking and listening, but cannot process or explain a Maths problem in verbal or written format?

> Are they reported to be good at working with words and phrases (i.e. higher attainment grades at English, History etc) but struggle to read numbers and Maths symbols?

> Are they visually creative (i.e. higher attainment grades at art, graphics etc.) but struggle when working with specific, more complicated measurements?

> Do they have a generally good attitude to learning but are often late to lessons / appointments, cannot remember a schedule such as a school timetable and struggle with time management in terms of estimating how long something might take?

> Are they sociable and competitive when taking part in sports and word-based board games such as Scrabble etc. but avoid strategy-based games such as chess, Monopoly etc.?

>Are they outgoing and independent but tend to get lost easily when in an unfamiliar place, struggling to follow a map or list of directions etc.?

If a young person (or adult) presents in this way, the question then is what can be done to formally identify and document their difficulties as a route to accessing further support. I have yet to come across a widely-used, professionally-recognized screener - and much like dyslexia, I think there is a reluctance these days to assign the label formally in any case. Usually the identification process involves running a range of ability and attainment tests that highlight possible discrepancies across their core skills set - and in turn, provide a signpost to the 'dyscalculia' difficulty section of the SEN library. I typically use the WRAT-4 Maths Computation subtest, the NNAT, the BPVS and then compare these with the results of our routine testing of reading, spelling and comprehension. A simple conversation with the student about their school timetable, asking them to traffic-light it, can also prove invaluable in unpicking specific issues.

There are dyscalculia-specific products out there, such as GL Assessment's Dyscalculia Screener, which seek to hone in on identifying specific underlying skills required for numeracy / Maths. The tasks tend to focus on:

- Place-Value - the use of number-lines within the mind's eye - i.e. a learner with a dyscalculia-type difficulty tends to not be able to spatially represent the distance between two numbers, such as 200 to 800 and from there find a number in-between.

- Visual-Estimation - the method, and subsequent accuracy and speed, with which a person can count - i.e. a learner with a dyscalculia-type difficulty tends to count a collection of dots one by one whereas a more neurotypical learner will count them in chunks of 3 to 5 at a time.

- Symbol-Meaning - distinguishing between sizes of numbers, according to their value - i.e. for a learner with a dyscalculia-type difficulty, numbers that are written in different physical sizes will be easily distinguished as smaller / larger whereas numbers that are written normally but are slightly different in value - such as 7 and 9 or 11, 437 and 11, 436 - will be harder to distinguish. (see picture below)

Credit: Nature 150–153, (10 January 2013)


- General Arithmetic - the learner's general arithmetic skills are assessed with reference then made to their history of numeracy / Maths acquisition in comparison to other subject and skill areas.

But even through use of this kind of screening process, it is likely to lead to an assessor committing only to a 'dyscalculia-type difficulties' commentary. This is not necessarily a problem because ultimately what any assessment for specific learning difficulties / differences should be seeking first and foremost, rather than a diagnostic label, is a way forward.

Within my own setting, where we have identified students to be presenting with dyscalculia-type difficulties, whilst we insist on not branding them as 'dyscalculic', we do use the information we have to advise our Maths teachers - and the general population of teachers - of their learner profile. A collection of the kind of advice strategies we draw upon can be found here on TES Resources.

From there, where necessary, our Learning Support Team provides extra tuition, tending to rely on Ronit Bird's 'Dyscalculia Toolkit' which coaches students in numeracy skills via a multi-sensory approach similar to that which underpins specialist dyslexia programmes. We have also dipped into books such as Edward H. Julius's 'Rapid Maths Tricks' which outlines alternative ways around common Maths problems.

Over the coming weeks I intend to read around more on dyscalculia with a view to seeing if there is more we can look to do for the 'minority of the minority' within my current setting. I'll share any other ideas I come across - and welcome any suggestions from readers, either publicly via the comments section or privately via the contact page.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Richard Lederer on the quirks of English...

Searching around the internet for various bits and pieces I could use in a training session on addressing speech & language needs in schools, I found the following funny little passage by the author Richard Lederer - you might want to share it with your colleagues and students to highlight just how difficult English can be to master!

"English is the most widely used language in the history of our planet. One in every seven human beings around the globe can speak English. And more than half of the world's books and three-quarters of international mail are written in this crazy tongue. 

Of all languages, English has the largest vocabulary - perhaps as many as two million words - and of course it has one of the noblest bodies of literature. 

However, let's face it! English is a crazy language! 

For example, there is no egg in eggplant, and will you find neither pine nor apple in a pineapple. Hamburgers are not made from ham, and French Fries were not invented in France.

We find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square, and a guinea pig is neither a pig nor is it from Guinea. 

And why is it that a writer writes, but fingers do not fing?

If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn't the plural of booth be beeth? One goose, two geese, so one moose, two meese?

So tell me, if the teacher taught - why isn't it that the preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables - what does a humanitarian eat? 

And if you wrote a letter - perhaps you also bote your tongue? 

Sometimes it makes you wonder if all English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. We ship by truck and send cargo by ship? And have you noticed that we have noses that run and feet that smell? 

How can a fat chance and a slim chance be the same thing? 

And where are the people who "are spring chickens," or who would actually "hurt a fly"? 

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which your alarm clock goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not by computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, is not really a race at all). That is why, when stars are out they are visible, but when the lights are out they are invisible. 

And why, when I wind up my watch I start it, but when I wind up this essay I end it."

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Top Ten Quotes on Language and Learning

I've recently been working on some resources to assist teachers and support staff when working with students who experience speech & language difficulties. Here are some interesting quotes to get you thinking about the importance of language in the learning process...

>> "Language exerts hidden power, like a moon on the tides." - Rita Mae Brown 

 >> "The limits of my language means the limits of my world." - Ludwig Wittgenstein 

 >> "A riot is the language of the unheard." - Martin Luther King, Jr. 

 >> "Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow." - Oliver Wendell Holmes 

 >> "Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about." - Benjamin Lee Whorf 

 >> “Language is not a genetic gift, it is a social gift. Learning a new language is becoming a member of the club -the community of speakers of that language.” ‒ Frank Smith 

 >> "The quality of our thoughts is bordered on all sides by our facility with language." - J. Michael Straczynski 

 >> "Language ought to be the joint creation of poets and manual workers." - George Orwell 

>> "[Language is] really a pretty amazing invention if you think about it. Here I have a very complicated, messy, confused idea in my head. I'm sitting here making grunting sounds and hopefully constructing a similar messy, confused idea in your head that bears some analogy to it.” - Danny Hillis

And perhaps most importantly:

 >> "Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand." - Karl A. Menninger